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Fixed up or burned out?

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Fixed up or burned out?

Torben Bergland

Torben Bergland, MD, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, is an associate director of the Health Ministries department, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

 

My father felt the calling to be a pastor—so did my brother. I felt the calling to become a physician. In a few weeks, I would enter medical school. I was shadowing a cardiologist from my church who had kindly offered to give me a glimpse into a doctor’s day in the hospital. Naturally, I was excited. I walked a step behind him into the morning meeting with all the other doctors, then to the ward for rounds with the nurses to see the patients. As we went along, I listened to them discuss symptoms and responses to treatment and share the results of various tests. Later we entered the lab to observe cardiac ultrasounds that enabled us to see the hearts beating, measure their size, and assess their function. As my cardiologist friend diligently went about his work, I could see that he cared about his patients, the nurses liked him, and his colleagues respected him. He fit my image of what a good doctor would be like. Toward the end of the day, we had a little break. Another doctor, a pleasant man somewhere in his fifties, joined us and took an interest in me. When I happily (and maybe with a hint of pride) told him that I, too, would become a doctor, he countered with a penetrating question: “Can’t you find something better to do?”

I will never forget that question— nor the man who asked it. How many times had he asked himself that? When was the first time it crept into his aware-ness? What was it like for him to get up every morning? To work long and tiring days—and sometimes nights? To try to uphold professional standards, serving both the interests of his patients and the hospital administration, meanwhile being an agreeable colleague? All this, yet wishing he was not there. Maybe he did not know where he wanted to be, but at least he knew he did not want to be where he was. This doctor most definitely was not fired up anymore.

At some point, maybe as a student and in his early career, he probably was filled with dreams, hopes, and ambitions. But now, he appeared burned out—tired, discouraged, frustrated, disappointed, disillusioned, hopeless— possibly feeling let down and somewhat of a failure. What may have started out as an important, meaningful, and challenging work experience had become unpleasant, unfulfilling, and meaningless. The engagement that drove him through years of study, internship, and residency had vanished. Many like him exist in the workplace. And, unfortunately, we find many like him in ministry.

A quick online search on pastoral or clergy burnout will produce a lot of hits, from personal blogs to academic research articles. But you don’t have to go online to find burnout. You probably know a colleague who is struggling with some degree of burnout and has suffered its consequences not only in work life but also in private life. Perhaps you may even know someone who has quit ministry because of such burnout. Or maybe you encountered it at some point in your own life and ministry or are battling it right now.

Burned out

Gerald Klingbeil gets it. “Pastoring is hard and can be very lonely at times. Pastors live in the ‘On’ mode most of the time. They have to. They need to be shepherds caring constantly for a diverse and often hurting flock. We expect them to be an administrative genius, leading people from different walks of life with differing needs and experiences who don’t always see eye to eye. They should be looking beyond the walls of their church buildings to reach the unreached and lost. They should be keeping an eye on the church building’s structure and maintenance, while at the same time expanding their media presence in a world that expects full media coverage.”1 So does burnout just come with the territory? Are there any strategies that can help?

Christina Maslach and her colleagues pioneered research on burnout and created a framework for understanding it.2 In their approach to burnout, they focused on the potential match or mismatch between the person and his or her work environment. If the match is good, the risk of burnout is low. On the other hand, if a significant mismatch exists, the risk of burnout increases. They identified six aspects of the work environment where a mismatch between what the job requires and provides on the one hand and the needs of the worker on the other may lead to burnout. One of them, of course, is the workload itself, but there are five more that we typically may not think of:

1. Workload. Usually we attribute burn-out to a continuing excessive workload. When we try to do too much in too little time with too few resources, eventually, we become overstretched. Mismatch may even occur if the workload is reasonable, but our skills, interest, or resources for the work are insufficient. With our energy and motivation depleted, our work efficiency and quality drops. Thus, we have a vicious spiral of diminishing work capacity and increasing unfinished work, and we are no longer able to keep up. Then, simply trying to work harder may worsen the situation rather than improve it because it will just make us more tired.

2. Control. When we experience too little influence or too much responsibility in our work, we may have a crisis of control. Generally, we want to shape our work in the way we think is best in order to achieve the goals we are committed to. Being forced to do things in a way that goes against our beliefs may make us lose our trust and respect and make us feel there is a threat to our dignity. On the other hand, if we are given too much responsibility while lacking the confidence, skills, and resources to fulfill it, then we may find ourselves overwhelmed by insecurity.

3. Reward. Whenever we invest our hands, hearts, and minds in anything, we look for some type of reward to come out of it. Sometimes it is money, but often the rewards we desire and need are on other levels. The satisfaction of having done something well, knowing that it has had an impact, being proud of it, or receiving recognition and appreciation from others are rewards that may be far more valuable than money. Whenever we do not receive such a reward, we may feel that both our work and ourselves are not truly valued.

4. Community. In order to thrive, we need positive connections with others. We function best when in community with people we like and respect; when support, understanding, comfort, happiness, and humor are shared generously. On the other hand, isolation that creates emotional distance or chronic, unresolved conflict triggering feelings of anger, resentment, and hostility, is destructive to community.

5. Fairness. People need respect, a sense of self-worth, and dignity. Fairness communicates and confirms that. But cheating, corruption, manipulation, and abuse are not only upsetting but also will trigger fear, conflict, and a sense of separation from colleagues and the workplace. When we or others are treated unfairly, we do not perceive the organization or individuals as reliable and trustworthy, and we distance ourselves emotionally.

6. Values. Inconsistency, conflicting values, or a perceived discrepancy between claimed values and actual practice creates tension both within organizations and between individuals. Mismatch in values may lead to considerable stress and alienation.

A perception of benevolence and integrity in all aspects of operations is fundamental to positive loyalty and identification. 

Fired up

It is recognized that the best places to work are “where employees trust the people they work with, have pride in the work they do, and enjoy the people they work with.”3 Our workplaces are something we create together.

Whatever our roles or positions are, we may all, pastors included, contribute to building a workplace culture that upholds healthy work-life boundaries, honors the value and dignity of every individual, cultivates community, practices fairness, and demonstrates benevolence and integrity as vital values. When we accomplish this within our organizations, then will our pastors thrive, not just survive. Then will our external trouble not so readily quench our internal fire. Then will our pastors declare like Jeremiah, “Then I said, ‘I will not make mention of Him, nor speak anymore in His name.’ But His word was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, and I could not” (Jer. 20:9, NKJV).

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Notes:

1  Gerald Klingbeil, “Calling Out the Majority: Why we need to talk about pastoral burnout, depression, and even suicide.” Adventist Review, September 7, 2018. www.adventistreview.org/calling-out-the-majority.

2  Christina Maslach, Wilmar B. Schaufeli, and Michael P. Leiter, “Job Burnout,” Annual Review of Psychology 52, no. 1 (2001): 397–422.

3  Michael C. Bush, A Great Place to Work for All: Better for Business, Better for People, Better for the World (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Pub., 2018), loc. 207, Kindle.

 

Sidebar: Might you be suffering from burnout?

When you think about your work overall, how often do you feel the following? (Please use the following scale to answer the question for each line)

0

Never

1

Almost never

2

Rarely

3

Sometimes

4

Often

5

Very often

6

Always

 

Tired

 

Disappointed with people

 

Hopeless

 

Trapped

 

Helpless

 

Depressed

 

Physically weak/sickly

 

Worthless/like a failure

 

Difficulties sleeping

 

“I’ve had it!”

 

 

 

Total Score

 

Your total score indicates the following:

Probably no burnout

0-14

Danger signs of burnout

15-24

Burnout

25-34

Very serious problems of burnout

35-44

Requires immediate professional help

45 or more

Adapted from Ayala Malach-Pines, 2005 “The Burnout Measure, Short Version,” International Journal of Stress Management 12, no. 1 (feb 2005): 78-88.

*Note that symptoms of burnout may overlap with other physical or mental conditions, so even if your scores indicates burnout, you may still need to consider other conditions or factors.

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